Voices of Black Folk
The Sermons of Reverend A. W. Nix
An in-depth study of the influence and conflicting interpretations of Black vocal heritage in the 1920s
In the late 1920s, Reverend A. W. Nix (1880–1949), an African American Baptist minister born in Texas, made fifty-four commercial recordings of his sermons on phonographs in Chicago. On these recordings, Nix presented vocal traditions and styles long associated with the southern, rural Black church as he preached about self-help, racial uplift, thrift, and Christian values. As southerners like Nix fled into cities in the North to escape the rampant racism in the South, they contested whether or not African American vocal styles of singing and preaching that had emerged during the slavery era were appropriate for uplifting the race. Specific vocal characteristics, like those on Nix’s recordings, were linked to the image of the “Old Negro” by many African American leaders who favored adopting Europeanized vocal characteristics and musical repertoires into African American churches in order to uplift the modern “New Negro” citizen.
Through interviews with family members, musical analyses of the sounds on Nix’s recordings, and examination of historical documents and relevant scholarship, Terri Brinegar argues that the development of the phonograph in the 1920s afforded preachers like Nix the opportunity to present traditional Black vocal styles of the southern Black church as modern Black voices. These vocal styles also influenced musical styles. The “moaning voice” used by Nix and other ministers was a direct connection to the “blues moan” employed by many blues singers including Blind Willie, Blind Lemon, and Ma Rainey. Both Reverend A. W. Nix and his brother, W. M. Nix, were an influence on the “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas A. Dorsey. The success of Nix’s recorded sermons demonstrates the enduring values African Americans placed on traditional vocal practices.
"Reverend A. W. Nix was seminal to the recording and selling of sermons as well as the culture of religious broadcasting. However, little was known about the man and his influences. Thankfully, Terri Brinegar has changed all of that. Her biographical study makes a very important contribution to the study of phonograph religion, religious broadcasting, and Black cultural production."- Lerone A. Martin, Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Chair and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University
"Terri M. Brinegar's Voices of Black Folk: The Sermons of the Reverend. A. W. Nix is a marvel. It's that rare comprehensive biography that is both readable and illuminating. Through her exacting research and meticulous lyrical and compositional analysis, she brilliantly introduces the most influential figure in Black music and ministry you've probably never heard of. A. W. Nix's sermons thrilled generations of African Americans during the Great Depression and heavily influenced everybody from Thomas Dorsey to Mahalia Jackson to the Reverend C. L. Franklin to Wilson Pickett. Along the way, Brinegar clears up several long-held mysteries involving Nix, transcribes some of the most influential sermons of the past century and creates a fully realized, well-rounded portrait of one of the great voices of his day. Voices of Black Folk immediately enters the too-small canon of indispensable scholarly books—not only on Black sacred music and preaching, but soul music, R&B, jazz, and rap as well."- Robert F. Darden, author of Nothing but Love in God's Water, Volumes 1 and 2, and People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music
"Supported by thorough academic research but written for a general readership, Terri Brinegar’s Voices of Black Folk offers a fascinating and honest portrayal of a church leader seeking to reconcile the traditions of the past with racial uplift goals of the present."- Robert M. Marovich, ARSC Journal